bridges :: christian ethics

18 Feb

the following blog post is another of our bridges discussion series here at the WayWard follower. the purpose of our bridges series is to generate discussion amongst guest authors and our collective readers — to serve as a forum of elevated dialogue and constructive conversation between groups that may have different perspectives on important issues to the church.  

this post in our bridges discussion series comes from jerome graber and deals with his desire to bridge the gap between ‘social gospel’ and ‘personal piety’ for a more complete view of christian ethics.

Jerome Graber is the proud owner of Greenmarch Farm and Second Home for Lost Girls, where he lives with his wife, three daughters, their horses, goats, chickens, cats, fish, and dog, as well as a constant stream of young ladies who always seem to find their way onto his property and into his pantry. 

When he can find the time, he runs a little construction business on the side to pay
for it all. 

Though Jerome has no formal theological training, he has had the good fortune of sitting under the teaching of several fantastic pastors throughout his life who have encouraged him to pursue the things of God with his heart and mind. 

Christian Ethics: Bridging the Divide

“You’re just obsessed with who other people have sex with! There are 2 billion people in the world without clean water! Don’t you see that’s more important?”

“Your ‘social gospel’ is just a thin disguise for socialism! Using the government to take money from people who have earned it to give it to others is not charity, it’s theft!”

Throwing rhetorical bombs across the church aisle is easy. We love to stereotype the “other side.” But is it really helpful? Just what ethical issues should the Church be focusing on today?

Rob Bell is right: if Christians don’t care about the poor, if we are unmoved that two billion people in the world do not have access to clean water, then we are missing the heart of Jesus. If our Christian morals begin and end with whether or not we smoke and cuss, and whether we are sufficiently strong in our stance against homosexual marriage, then we have missed the bigger, more important picture.

However, I believe that Bell, and many of his fellow travelers, have missed an important point: the social ills they rightly decry and wish to see solved are, at their root, merely symptoms of personal moral failings. In Love Wins, Bell does not explicitly say, but does strongly imply, that if rich Christians just gave more money to help the poor, we could solve the extreme poverty crisis. But is this really the case?

Why do two billion people in the world lack access to clean water? It is not primarily from a lack of resources. Rather, it is because in too many places those in power misappropriate and outright steal the money that should go to bettering the lives of the citizens. And stealing, whether the theft is done by a petty criminal or a despot, is an issue of personal morality.

Why is it that in America, the wealthiest country on earth, there are so many living in poverty? Certainly, institutional roadblocks to improvement exist – poor public education in too many cities, lack of job opportunities, racism, and sexism are real, and Christians should work to alleviate these wherever possible. But by far the greatest social ill causing long term poverty in America is single motherhood. And at its heart, single motherhood is caused by two people choosing to have sex outside of marriage, then compounded by the father’s unwillingness to marry the mother of his child.

This social evil is responsible for creating intergenerational poverty and dependence, and is filling up our prisons with millions of young men who never had the chances in life that people like me take for granted.

Now, should Christians help the poor? Even those who are in poverty because of poor life choices they’ve made? Absolutely! If you find yourself sitting in hard-hearted judgment on someone in poverty because “they brought it on themselves” then you had better examine yourself. Spiritual pride is the worst of all possible sins.

But neither should we lose sight of the fact that this scourge is caused, at its root, not by bad government policy or lack of job opportunities. It is caused by private moral failing. If we, as Christians, ignore this uncomfortable truth, we will forever be fighting the symptoms of poverty and never affecting a cure.

So my humble suggestion is this: We need to bring the two sides into harmony.

Fundamentalists, evangelicals, Christian conservatives in general, should resist their sometimes knee-jerk reaction to calls for greater action on behalf of the poor as “social gospel liberalism”. Atlas Shrugged is not the Gospel. We need to reacquaint ourselves with what separated the sheep from the goats in that most frightening of all Jesus’ parables.

And post-modern, emergent church, seeker sensitive groups of all types should develop a renewed sense of personal moral accountability – of our individual guilt before God and salvation through personal repentance and faith. WIC is also not the Gospel. We also need to remember the words of St Paul “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”


3 Responses to “bridges :: christian ethics”

  1. Carlynn Jurica February 19, 2012 at 12:09 PM #

    Good points, Jerome. But as the child of a single mother, I’d like to point out that your perspective of single parenthood is extremely narrow. My parents were married, then had me a few years later, then split about 13 years after that. For a good chunk of time, my mom was literally the only person raising me, which actually meant that she was raising me as much as she could but I was also raising myself. Thankfully, we’ve reconciled now, but that’s just my story. Others have different stories to tell. Some people never see their dads again. Some people have to go through the painful tug-of-war that comes with joint custody. Some lose a parent not to divorce or abandonment, but death. For some, it’s not single MOTHERhood, but single FATHERhood; sometimes mothers are the ones who abandon the family–men are not always the guilty party. Some have a situation where there is not physical abandonment, but emotional abandonment by a parent who leaves the entire responsibility of child-rearing to the other parent. All of these situations can be just as detrimental individually and societally as unwed teen girls getting knocked up and stuck with the responsibility of raising the child alone.

    It should also be said that single parenthood does not always end in social disaster. Sometimes, everyone comes out just fine.

    This is why we need to listen and pay attention to individuals’ stories rather than just grouping people together with our stereotypes and assumptions.

    Don’t get me wrong, though. I really do appreciate your perspective. It has enriched my view of social justice. Thanks for posting! 🙂

    • athanasius96 February 19, 2012 at 12:48 PM #

      Agreed, Carlynn. I think the larger issue is that we lack the social framework for all families (married, single or otherwise) to support healthy function in the midst of difficult circumstances.

    • the WayWard follower February 23, 2012 at 10:02 AM #

      thanks for that, carly. it’s always helpful to expand our perception as we look at the stories of others. living in community means walking alongside one another, and hearing the stories of others as legitimate to them.

      could it be a key reason we continue to have a hard time looking after our neighbor is because we don’t allow ourselves to get to know them? when we allow (or force) ourselves to hear their story, and to care –it changes us — and we are inspired to change things for them.

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